On August 2, 2012 I opened my eyes to our hungry three-year-old son, Truman, perched at my bedside. I smiled into his bright blue eyes, which reached the edge of my bed, and for a moment I got lost in the depths of them. He excitedly grinned back at me eagerly asking, “Mommy, what’s for breakfast?”
He could have asked me for anything in those moments and I would have caved. I already suspected his answer would be his favorite - pancakes, but I loved the way he said “pan-takes” so I asked anyway just to get to hear him say it. Sure enough, he requested “PAN-TAKES!” Making pancakes together had become a special time for the two of us. He had helped me so much by now that he could nearly make them without me.
It suddenly dawned on me that we had used the last of the milk the night before. Wanting to appease him, I made a suggestion I knew would excite him, “Oh, baby we don’t have milk to make pancakes. Do you want to go to the dairy with mommy?” He was always fond of trips to the dairy, mostly because our dairyman always made him fresh chocolate milk upon arrival. Truman enthusiastically agreed, but after looking at the time I realized if we needed to make a trip to the dairy first it would be almost noon before we were able to actually eat. Feeling a bit guilty for disappointing him, I suggested the next best thing – waffles! He approved of my proposal and we set off about our day.
It was a gorgeous day, but the beautiful blue summer sky is always deceiving during the peak of Texas summers, because scorching temperatures are a given even before noon. The wind was blowing a bit, creating an opportune time for hanging our linens on the clothesline out back.
Truman tagged along, asking his most popular question, “Why you do that?”
I could hear him giggling while playing in the freshly hung white sheets that were blowing in the breeze.
Before I knew it he was off to explore the farm and routinely follow his daddy around. Naptime was nearing for our ten-month-old daughter who I had been toting around on my hip all morning so I headed back into the house. It was just an average day on the farm, with a houseful of kids and a never-ending To Do list.
I changed the baby’s diaper, and then spread out on my bed with her tucked in one arm and my laptop beside us. Our two teenagers piled in next to me while I worked on editing pictures for a client. They were searching Craig’s List for iPhones together because we had promised to get them both (new to them) phones. They ended up finding a listing with two iPhones for $500 which seemed to be ideal since we lived out in the country and everything was at least an hour away - I was killing two birds with one stone. I text the number on the listing & arranged a meeting for later in the afternoon giving myself about an hour to finish up the current projects I had been working on before leaving. Shortly after, my husband and Truman came in to escape the already hundred-degree summer heat. I mentioned my recent deal and asked him to get some cash out of our safe for me. He immediately was critical of my arrangements. From his experience as a seasoned police officer he cautioned me on traveling alone with that much cash to meet a stranger, who for reasons unknown to us had two cell phones for sale. He saw bright red flags, but I dismissed them as him being an overly cautious cop. I ignored his warnings and tried to persuade him to agree by suggesting I take a small handgun with me for protection - just in case. I rarely carried a gun, but I knew if I did he would be more at ease.
Our typical chaotic “getting ready mode” ensued with the kids in and out of my bedroom, deciding who was coming with me and who was staying at home with their dad. “Get something to eat! I’m buying phones not food,” I directed my oldest two, who were excited about getting new phones. While I began to get dressed Tim got out a small handgun and loaded it for me. I was half paying attention to him when he set it down on our nightstand and went into the boys’ bedroom to cuddled with Truman and watch TV to rest during the heat of the day.
My room had finally emptied and I had nursed the baby to sleep by now, so I decided to take advantage of the quiet to make a quick phone call. As I dialed a friend's number, I yelled out a five-minute warning to let the kids know we would be leaving soon.
I was on the phone for maybe three minutes before I heard a loud noise coming from the porch just outside my bedroom. I looked up & saw my six-year-old, standing in my doorway. I asked him what the noise was, but he shrugged his shoulders signaling he didn’t know. Assuming it was my dogs knocking a mason jar off the table outside, I told him to go check. Instantly I could feel something was wrong and my gut instinct urged me to check instead. I dropped my phone, instructing my son to keep the baby from falling off the bed while I rushed towards the porch door.
As soon as I stepped onto the porch I found Truman lying unconsciously on the ground with an obvious injured left eye. Initially, I had no idea what was happening. I honestly don’t know when it registered in my mind what had actually happened - that it was a gun accident. So much of that day is a complete blur. I instinctively picked my little boy up, telling myself he was going to be okay, but when I held him to my pounding chest, I didn’t feel his little arms wrap around my neck like they so often had all the other times I embraced him after his typical toddler injuries. I knew . . . I knew my son was dying.
Panic quickly consumed me and I began screaming for my husband who quickly headed towards my loud cries with our two younger boys standing closely behind him. We met half way in the house, at which point Tim immediately saw the gaping hole in the back of Truman’s head. I handed Truman over to him and he took him back outside to keep the other kids from seeing their little brother with such a horrific injury. Clinging to hope, I hysterically called our local 911 pleading for help, but I soon realized I wasn’t hearing any cries or even Tim yelling for help. Suddenly, I became aware that my husband was on our porch with our dying son and a gun. Fear crippled me from going back outside to them. I was terrified that my husband was going to be so consumed with grief that he would take his own life. Out of sheer desperation for help, I called the police department my husband worked for the last sixteen years. The dispatcher who answered my call was a friend of ours and I began begging her to send Tim’s sergeant, who was like a father to him. I put the phone down and all I could do was stand in my bedroom and scream at the Heavens. I begged God not to take my baby. “Not my baby! Please not my baby!!! Nooooo!” I screamed over and over.
I finally found the courage to step back outside onto our porch where I found my husband with tears streaming down his face and our little boy in his arms. For nearly a year, I never knew what my husband endured on our porch that horrible day. I didn't know he breathed for our son until he knew it would only cause Truman pain in trying to prevent the inevitable. Tim wouldn't tell me until I was strong enough that he said daddy one last time before his body started its natural response to trauma. He carried a weight he knew was too heavy for me. Instead, he cleaned our son off as much as he could before I came back outside with them. I sat down and Tim put him in my arms for me to hold, just as he did the day he was born. Seconds later Truman took a breath and I exclaimed, “he’s alive, he’s going to make it!!!” but the look on my husband’s face said otherwise. For sixteen years he’s had to look into the eyes of mothers and told them their child had died, but this time it was his own wife with his youngest son. He uttered the hardest words he’s ever had to say, “No baby, he’s gone.” I squeezed my eyes shut trying to unsee it all, trying to unlive this moment, as if when I opened my eyes, it would all be a nightmare. Silently praying for a miracle.
Instead, I opened them to the reality that I was holding my lifeless little boy. That breath of hope was actually his last breath. So many thoughts were racing through my head. How could this really be happening? How were we ever going to survive this tragedy together and whole? How did we let this happen? How was my shattered heart still beating when his had stopped? I sat in disbelief, begging God to take us all. It wasn’t a true desire of death for us all, but the plea of a mother enduring the fear of earthly separation from her child. I had never been away from him for longer than a night’s end after a sleepover with his grandmother who lived five minutes away. Now the forced reality that our tight knit family was literally being dismembered was unimaginable. I couldn’t fathom our family surviving this tragedy whole. The only alternative was for God to take us all, not just one of us. How does a mama survive such intense heart trauma? How does a marriage endure this? How does family stay together? The pain was so intense I felt sick to my stomach.
“He is God’s now,”my husband cried kneeling down next to us. Those moments on our porch were indescribably heart shattering, but in the midst of our devastation there was a peace that overcame us both.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalms 34:18
Our world stopped in those moments while the rest of the world kept spinning around us. I could hear the sound of an ambulance siren, then saw the flashing red lights coming up our dirt road. I was quickly jolted out of those sacred last moments we had together with our son into the inevitable reality of the legal process that was to unfold. An ambulance from our small-town volunteer fire department made its way to our old farmhouse. After coming to a stop, both doors immediately opened. I squeezed Truman tighter, knowing what was about to happen. The driver was a familiar face, a man about my husband’s age. I remember Tim calling him by name, “He’s gone Brian, he’s gone.” Then as he stepped onto the porch with us, Tim gently looked at me. With a soft, yet persuasive tone, Tim told me I had to let go. I had to open my hands and allow him to take my baby out of my arms. I didn’t want to release him, I unyieldingly gripped my hands around him as much as I could, wanting to sit on that porch and hold him forever. It was too much for me to take in so quickly. It was too much for my mind to process. I needed more time! Tim reached down and I release my trembling hands, allowing him to lift his frail toddler body out of my arms. It took everything in me not to fight him. Instead I surrendered, knowing I really had no choice. I nearly vomited as I followed behind them to the ambulance, watching my baby’s limp little legs dangle from his arms. I climbed in and sat next to him, overlooking the paramedic who was hooking monitors on Truman’s still chest. I looked at that black and white rectangular screen for what seemed like a lifetime, still grasping for a miracle that there would be some sign of life in him. There wasn’t. There was just a straight line pushing me further into a reality I was terrified of. My last bit of hope slipping away, I began to take in every little detail of my son as my mind could remember. Singing to him while looking at his dirty little feet, proof of his life just hours prior. I tried to mesmerize his toddler hands. Those little hands I had just dipped into paint to make a Hungry Caterpillar craft. I ran my hands over his soft brown hair that we had just cut for the first time that summer to look like his daddy’s military “high & tight.” His little lips that would kiss me goodnight. That dominate little freckle next to the chicken pox scar under his eye. His eyes, those deep blue eyes I had woke to that very morning. How was I never going to be able to stare into them again?
This sacred time with my sweet boy was quickly interrupted by police sirens nearing our house, then a county deputy stepped inside the ambulance and explained he needed to take pictures of me for evidence. Evidence. I stood over my son’s body while the deputy instructed me,“Face me. Turn. Turn again. Turn one more time.” As he photographed me covered in blood, a numbness came over me that I can only compare to that of a woman being raped who succumbs to the demands of her attacker, knowing she has no choice but to do as he says. I glanced down at Truman and the reality that we were responsible for his death consumed me with guilt. Unaware of the standard law enforcement procedures (anytime there is an unattended child death, first responders are to assume it was a homicide until ruled out – we were guilty until there was proof, we weren’t), fear instantly ignited within me and the thought that we could lose all our children terrorized me. “They are going to take our kids!” was pushed to the top of my mind. When I stepped outside the ambulance our front yard was full of police – local police, state troopers, and a Texas Ranger, and there was my husband in the middle of it all. I recognized a few of the officers from Tim's PD standing beside him. “It’s not real yet, but when it is, I’m going to need you,” he told them. I seemed to be standing still in a world spinning around me. Then it occurred to me that we had not broken the news to our other children who were still inside unaware of what was happening outside. I stepped back onto our blood-stained porch, with a deputy following closely behind me. I now empty handedly faced the same door I had raced through just an hour before with Truman in my arms. I put my hand on that door and prayed,
“God, we need you! My kids have got to see you in this. Please give me the strength to walk through this door and tell them their little brother is with You now. I trust you. Please be with us.”
I opened the door to a trail of blood, leading to my bedroom where I had met my husband with Truman. I was covered in blood. I asked the deputy, who wouldn't let me out of his sight, if I could change my clothes before facing my kids. He gave me permission to change, but told me he couldn’t leave me alone, then respectively looked away. Once I was changed, he took my bloody clothes to add to their evidence. He followed me into the bathroom, asking if I was going to hurt myself – “No, I just want to wash this blood off my hands and face.” I stared into the mirror while rubbing Truman’s blood off my hands, I no longer recognized the woman looking back at me. I wanted to scream and yell at her. I wanted to warn her, but it was too late. Instead, I had to walk into our living room, into the eyes of my children and tell them the reality I was still struggling to accept myself. Oh, how I wanted to tell theme everything was going to be okay, that Truman was just hurt – not dead.
I walked into our living room where our five other children were huddled together on the couch, patiently waiting for an explanation to the screams they heard from across the house, the sirens coming up our dirt road, and now the police in our front yard who they could see from the living room windows surrounding their daddy. They had braved my cries together, not knowing what they were really hearing was their mama losing her earthly hold of their littlest brother.
I wanted to tell them it was all going to be okay, but instead I looked into their precious faces and I uttered the words that ripped their young hearts wide open, “Truman didn’t make it. He is with Jesus now.” I don’t remember exactly what I said to them after that. I do know, the second worst pain I have felt as a mother, was when I told them Truman died. I wanted to scoop them all up and just hold them and cry together, but the legal procedures kept us from having even five minutes together as a family to process what had just happened.
The police had begun their investigation and were ready to question our kids. The only way to prevent them from having to be interviewed multiple times was to agree to all go to the child advocacy center. How could we leave with Truman’s body all alone in that ambulance? What were they going to do with my baby? I felt completely powerless. We had barely just started letting him spend the night with his grandparents, and now suddenly he was gone, and I had no say in what they were going to do with his body.
My mind was racing, fearful that we were going to be arrested and our other kids would be put into foster care. How could I endure losing them all? As I was continuing to be pushed into situation out of my control, I could feel myself becoming numb in self-preservation.
The thirty-minute car ride to the child advocacy center was intense. Tim sat next to me, totally disconnected from me. Not once consoling me or even offering me his hand to hold. I could tell he was even slightly irritated with my legal questions. He tried to reassure me, “this is all standard procedure,” but I was so devastated I could only imagine the worst. There was no best-case scenario. Regardless of the legal ramifications, our family was stepping foot into a valley not many survive together. I needed him to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay, that wewere going to be ok, but he didn’t. I felt so alone. I remember asking him if we were going to make it through this. I wondered if he blamed me. I was desperate for him to reassure me that our family wasn’t going to be ripped apart by the seams. His only response was that if there was any legal responsibility, it was on him. He voluntarily would take full blame. I know this was his attempt of protecting me, but only scared me more. I didn’t want to lose him either. I needed him more now than ever. I stared out the window terrified of what was about to happen next.
We arrived at an old house in the middle of a neighborhood where we were introduced to several social workers and briefly told that they would be interviewing each of us separately. All the interviews were recorded on video as evidence in the investigation. My kids must have been so scared, but they each bravely stood and went back to separate rooms all by themselves. They were given stuffed animals and blankets (the social workers only means of offering comfort to them) as they were each taken back and asked lots of questions. The kids and I were terrified and traumatized, but also knew we didn't have a choice.
After leaving the advocacy center friends offered us their vacation home which was only about ten minutes from our home. We sent the kids ahead to meet some of our family and friends who had already gathered there and were waiting to love on us. Tim and I decided to go back to our house to get a few things. We pulled up our dirt road and found unfamiliar cars still parked out front. Some of his fellow officers and best friend had buckets of water and were scrubbing the blood off our front porch so we wouldn’t have to face that heartache. I could see the exhaustion mixed with weariness in their eyes and was so thankful for the sacrifice they were making for us.
Our door had yellow crime scene tape around it and there was still a trail of blood leading into our bedroom. I went to the foot of my bed to cry and found one small blood stain on my sheets – it was the shape of a heart. The reality of the day was hitting me faster and harder. Each minute flet like an eternity. I could barely breathe. I grabbed a few clothes and toiletries for us and the kids and went back outside to try to escape the horror of my bedroom. We thanked our friends and left our home, unsure if it would ever feel like home again.
When we arrived at our temporary home it was full of people and food. It wasn’t home, but it felt safe and we were so thankful to have a place to go until we could face our own home.
That night is such a blur to me. What stands out to me most is Tim sitting at the table crying uncontrollably. The best comparison I can give is the description of King David in the Bible, wailing and crying out when his son died. That was my husband – the toughest man I knew, in complete despair, totally broken. He cried like a man who had never had permission to cry before. Every pain he stuffed deep inside himself throughout his 40 years of life was suddenly released with our son’s death at the forefront. Not even valium could give him rest from the grief. He blamed himself and repeatedly said, “I killed my son.” His close friends from the PD brought a travel trailer to camp out next to the house we were staying at so that he wouldn’t be alone. Everyone was so afraid he was going to take his own life. The focus suddenly was on him and just willing him to live.
Numbness continued to wash over me as he let it all out, I began to keep it all in. That night we took a shower together and he began to kiss me and run his hands over my body. He was desperate for an escape from the pain and wanted to use me to numb himself. I cringed and crawled inside myself as if I was being touched for the first time after a forceful rape. All I wanted was to be held, but quickly realized any physical touch was a huge trigger for me. I didn’t understand it, I had never been raped an felt unworthy of the comparison, but it was exactly how my body was responding. Even at the touch of my own husband. He felt rejected and assumed it was because I blamed him for our son’s death, but I never blamed him. I knew how much he loved our kids. He was a good daddy. And Truman was his shadow, he idolized Tim.
I knew my husband would never intentionally hurt him. After all, he was the kind of man who would lay his own life down for a stranger. He would no doubt do anything to protect his kids. He was always trying to foresee hidden dangers. As a seasoned police officer, he had witnessed his share of accidents. He could foresee so many dangers the average person is oblivious to. We thought we had all our safety bases covered.
If anything, I blamed myself. I was still trying to process everything from that day and couldn’t wrap my mind around so many of the details.
How did he slip by me – with a gun? How did I not see him? How did his little hands physically pull that trigger? How did this happen? WHY did this happen to us? That gun was down for a matter of minutes, how did our entire lives change in just minutes? Why didn’t anything make any sense?
If one thing about that day would have been different, he would still be alive.
That next morning Tim laid in bed next to me and in all his brokenness said,
“I want what you have – I want your faith.”
He has always been very supportive of my faith & raising our children with Christian values, but he never completely surrender his life to God. There were years during our marriage that I begged, pleaded, threatened & blackmailed him into church, but over our ten-year marriage I realized I was not his god & it was not my job to play god to him. My job was to let my light shine, so that Tim could see God in me. Never did I ever think that Truman’s death would bring him closer to God.
In his deepest despair my husband gave his shattered heart to Christ.
Later that afternoon my dad was praying with Tim, asking God to give him comfort in knowing that Truman was with Him. During that prayer, my husband, the same man who used to debate the Bible with me, reasoning “That burning bush, baby they smoked a lot of opium back then," told me God gave him a beautiful vision of Truman surrounded by the most beautiful light and love. Rooted in my faith, I knew exactly what his description of Light & Love were – friends, that is God himself!
Because the nature of Truman's death, an autopsy was required. We had no say in this and weren't even told where his body was taken. The thought of his little body in a cold drawer and then being cut wide open from head to toe tormented means there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. It was more than I could bare. The next few days of waiting for our son's body to be "released" liked to have driven me mad. When we were finally notified that the morgue was ready for his body to be taken to a funeral home, Tim made all the arrangements, insisting on him being cremated. The idea of his body burning to ashes literally made me sick to my stomach, but this was very important to Tim and honestly, the alternative of his body being put in a casket and covered with six feet of dirt didn't make me feel any better. I didn't want any of this - I just wanted my baby back! I wanted to wake up and it all be a horrible nightmare. We should be planning birthdays and holidays, not our son's memorial services. No parent should ever have to make those decisions. I agreed to have Truman cremated, but insisted on being able to see him one last time.
I picked out a bright blue t-shirt with the words GOD IS GOOD in big bold lettering, a pair of his shorts, and his favorite knit hat to cover the autopsy as much as possible. I had washed those little clothes hundreds of times, folding them and putting them in his drawer, only for him to come in behind me and drag them all out in search of his favorites - which always meant something orange. I'm not sure why he was so instant on his clothes, because it never failed to find him running naked around our farm by noon. The boy didn't have a tan line on his sun kissed body. His statement outfit was nothing but his boots! The drive to the funeral home was the first time we were all alone together as a family, but I don't remember a word being spoken. As we pulled up to the funeral home, I gripped his clothes tight, as my heart raced.
Tim and I followed the owner straight to a backroom. Before he opened the door for us he whispered to Tim, "Are. you sure she can do this?" Tim hesitated and then nodded as we walked into an empty room with white walls, wooden cabinets, a galvanized sink against the back wall and stainless steel table standing in the middle of the room - with my little boy laying on it. Lifeless. I struggled to breathe. Guilt consumed me - I was distracted and turned my back for three minutes! Looking at him in complete stillness solidified the reality of it all. This wasn't a nightmare - this was our heartbreaking reality.
I began to play soft music from my phone, Tim handed me a wet cloth and we began to wash our son together. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. His little body felt so cold and frail. I could feel his bones crumble in my hands - I could hear it - his body was so frail. His little face was bruised from the gunshot, a dark hole where his beautiful blue eye once was. His head had been cut right down the middle and was loosely stitched together. We spent hours with him, singing to him, praying, and finally carrying him into a private room so our kids could say their final goodbyes.
We let each of the kids say whatever they needed to their little brother as we held him. We tried to answer all their questions, but we were so broken ourselves - we didn't know how we were going to help them through their own pain while suffering so deeply ourselves. When everyone left, I sat in a chair in the corner of the room and held my son for the last time. The backdoor to the alley was half open and after a few minutes a black car pull up, a man stepped out and opened the trunk, pulling a black bag out. I held my baby as tight as I possibly could, begging God to not make me let go. "Please, give him back!" I couldn't stop starring at that black bag through the tears streaming down my face when a stranger walked in and Tim said, "They've given us as much time as they could. We have to let them take him."
Time. We never seem to have enough. Three years with Truman certainly wasn't enough time. Oh, how I wish I could go back in time and undo that day. I begged God for more time with. I sat in that chair for what felt like a lifetime, watching them put Truman's body in that black bag, knowing the next time I held him, I would be holding his ashes.
August 2, 2012 I held my hands out to God, pleading for a miracle, but instead I found myself holding our son as his heart stopped beating. I screamed at the heavens, demanding a different answer, a second chance, to go back, to do it over, do it better, but instead I began living a life I didn’t choose. A life of enduring the indescribable pain from a heart amputation, because when my child left this earth, so did a part of me. I found myself with two choices, to either allow this pain to consume me or to use it as much as I possibly could to help others and glorify God. I became determined to allow God to transform my dis-membered heart into a re-membering heart. I want Truman to know that his life and even his death, made me a better person, not a bitter person. It is a daily battle to choose to not let the guilt consume me. My husband and I take full responsibility for our son's death and are adamant sharing our story to bring awareness about the importance of responsible gun safety and ownership.
Every day is a challenge to keep my focus on eternity, reminding myself that each day we are separated from Truman, is a day closer to him, not further from him.